In the annals of the American stage “Little Egypt” has become the generic reference for the Oriental dancer, better known in vaudeville and burlesque circles as the cooch dancer. The dance is also known by a variety of names: the couchee-couchee, houchie-couchie, koochie koochie or even given alternate names like hoolah-hoolah and tootsie-wootsie.
As a result of her numerous incarnations, considerable confusion has been raised in various publications about where and when “Little Egypt” first appeared on the American scene. Some have pointed to the Street of Cairo attraction on the Midway at the Chicago World’s Fair and Columbian Exposition in 1893. Others place it later at the St. Louis Fair of 1904 or earlier at the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876.
The confusion arises from the various retellings of the story in which conflations have occurred. There were two “World’s Fairs” (Chicago, 1893, and Saint Louis, 1904) and both had an attraction called “The Street of Cairo.” The one in St. Louis was intended to replicate the success of the Chicago Fair and boasted the presence of the “Belle Fatima” and “Little Egypt” among its dancing girls. Some writers have inadvertently added to the confusion by mistakenly referring to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, 1876, or the St. Louis “Universal Exposition” of 1904 as “the Columbian Exposition.” To see how the confusion arose, a little background is necessary.
The first oriental dancers on record in America arrived for the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876, where a dancing group (three men musicians and two women dancers) performed in the Turkish Theatre. After the Centennial closed, the act moved to the Eleventh and Wood Street theatre in Philadelphia. Gilbert credits them with presenting the first “hootchy-kootchy” act in America. “The women wore short skirts, and a silken band bound their breasts. Their feet, in fact the rest of their bodies, were bare….Although the dance was sensationally sexual, it was received with apathy. The can-can, with the girls kicking high in ruffled drawers…was considered far more risqué.” The show folded as quickly as the proverbial Arab tents.
When the Chicago World’s Fair was organized, plans were made for a Midway Plaisance that would combine entertainment and edification for the delectation of the visitors. The mile-long strip was laid out in the fashion still familiar to us at Disney World or Busch Gardens. Sections were designated for various countries and “villages” were constructed in the architectural styles of those countries featuring displays, shops, and restaurants.
The layout of the Midway, however, was far from the haphazard arrangements associated with county fairs and traveling carnivals. Allen describes the arrangements as follows: “Officially, the Midway operated under the auspices of the exposition’s Department of Ethnology, and it was planned as part of an ambitious project to introduce the science of anthropology to the American public and to bring together anthropological artifacts and data that might form the core of a great museum collection….It is both ironic and appropriate that the cooch dance, the immediate forerunner of the striptease, should enter burlesque by way of an attempt to popularize the new science of anthropology.”
The “village” exhibits were arranged according to a Darwinian scheme that located the most primitive examples (Dahomey and the American Indians) farthest from the White City. The semi-civilized societies (the Middle East and Asia) came next and finally the Teutonic and Celtic entries were constructed nearest the White City as the pinnacle of evolutionary development.
In the middle of the Midway, across from that new marvel of engineering, the Ferris Wheel, stood the Cairo Street. In spite of the notoriety given to the dancing girls at the time and subsequently, the camel rides received almost as much attention in the guidebooks.
A Street in Cairo has become a conventional adjunct of universal Expositions, but the Chicago concession was declared by competent judges to be the best of its kind that has been so far gotten together. The success of this entertainment was largely due to the characteristics of Western people, who seemingly look upon a ride on the back of a camel with favor, and certainly the same people love to see the mount [i.e., the camels rising]…. On these tall beasts, ladies with their male admirers would seat themselves, and when the camel got up, there was joy in Cairo. It was the most hilarious place on the Midway….Why this should have become such an attraction is not known; but because there were always a swain and lass together, and because the lass always repented when it was too late, the altitudinous camel was rising in sixteen parts, the dense crowd at the square would go into convulsions of merriment.
For an extra fee of ten cents, visitors could go into a reproduction of the Temple of Luxor at the western end of the Street. Replicas of the mummies of Tutmose III, Sesostris, Seti I, and “a dozen others of the most important people who have yet lived on earth” were displayed. Periodically inside the Temple, a procession was staged with musicians and “two priests of Isis, draped with leopard skins, stood erect in position, and the solemn Egyptian chants, such as Verdi has imitated in the opera of “Aida,” were sung.” For all of this wealth of Nilotic culture, the conclusion was somewhat ruefully drawn that “Egyptologists are not as plentiful as people who think they want to ride on a camel, and it was the other end of Cairo Street that was always crowded.”
For most historians, the reason for the crowds at the other end of the Street had nothing to with camel rides and everything to do with dancing girls, of whom there was no shortage on the Midway. The Egyptian Theatre ran a continuous performance from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and there were also dancing troupes at the Persian, Turkish, and Algerian Theatres. The dance itself, as described in the souvenir book Gems of the World’s Fair and Midway Plaisance, was a suggestively lascivious contorting of the abdominal muscles, which is extremely ungraceful and almost shockingly disgusting. Curiosity prompted many to view the performance, but very few remained more than five minutes before this was fully satisfied. Only one girl danced at a time, but others were in reserve, so that as one retired another promptly succeeded her, thus making the performance continuous throughout the day and evening.
The racist and sexist bias of the organizers is apparent in the descriptions found in the several photographic albums from the Fair. The dancing girls did not get any better reviews than their dancing style. The description under a photograph of three of the women from the Egyptian theatre reads in part:
Writers of Oriental stories have created the impression among the uninformed that houris of the East are sylph-like and beautiful; but close contact reveals them as we behold them here, destitute of animation, formless as badly-stuffed animals, as homely as owls, and graceless as stall-fed bovines. [Having said this, the author tempers his remarks with a back-handed compliment:] But truth compels us to add that the dancing girls in the Midway were not the best types of their race either in form or character, and that their abdominal muscles were the only portions of their anatomy or mind which showed any cultivation, while these, to their shame, were displayed to serve the basest uses.
Sol Bloom, the impresario, press agent, and later congressman, brought a Syrian troupe from the Paris Exposition of 1889 to perform at the Algerian Theatre and it is he who is widely credited with dubbing his star performer “Little Egypt.” But, in his own words, “I most emphatically deny that I had anything to do with a female entertainer known professionally as ‘Little Egypt.’ At no time during the Chicago Fair did this character appear on the Midway. She was later introduced at Coney Island and there and elsewhere she acquired great renown for her actual or reputed stage appearances in the nude.” Nonetheless the theatrical tradition lives on. Sobel says that her real name was Fahreda Mahzar, that she came from Damascus, not Cairo, and she did a dance with a lit candelabra on her head. According to Sobel, “Little Egypt” single-handedly saved the Chicago Fair from bankruptcy, but, alas, this is the stuff of theatrical legends, not history.
American audiences in their enthusiasm to see the dancing did not distinguish between the Cairene, Algerian, Turkish or Persian performers and hence the confusion among later writers as to where the one-and-only genuine “Little Egypt” really performed. In the description of the Algerian Theatre, The Dream City portfolio reports:
[The] troop [sic] arrived on the 25th of April, 1893, and it was not long before nearly all the leading clubs of the city had seen the pretty Nautch girls…. The oriental dances, as performed here, were in no sense disorderly or vulgar, for the dancer scarcely lifted her feet from the floor, and her long flowing skirts were fastened about her ankles. The music which accompanied the dance was peculiarly weird to Western ears.
The reference to Nautch girls in the Algerian Theatre may explain why Joe Laurie, Jr., in his recollections about vaudeville referred to a Nautch Theatre as the venue of “Little Egypt” at the Fair.
One dancing girl did get her name on the marquee: Belle Baya, at the Persian Palace, was billed as “the greatest Oriental star, the prize beauty of the Paris Exposition of 1889.” The other dancing girls, the guidebook noted, were “nothing more or less than young women of Paris, educated in the cafés chantants of that pleasure-seeking city…. The original idea of the Persian Palace [to demonstrate Persian wares and crafts] was laudable. The development which made the place profitable and popular was instructive only in deplorable things.” In another photo, a dancer in the theatre at the Street of Cairo is identified as coming from Madame Roza’s Cafe Chantant in Paris. There are mixed motivations at work in these descriptions of the dancers: by connecting the girls with Paris, the naughtiness of their performances can be suggested to attract the men and at the same time the negative “oriental” features (such as ascribed to the Cairo Street women) could be offset with the not-so-subtle hints that the dancers were really French, not Arabic. Certainly, the frequently reproduced Culver Service photos of “Little Egypt” are in sharp contrast to those of the Egyptian dancers shown in the souvenir albums: the theatricality in the pose of the former (her arms raised above her head holding a scarf, weight all concentrated on the right leg and hip with the left foot forward to the side, flesh-tight-midriff accentuated by the bolero fringe above and the low-tied skirt below) contrasts sharply with the ethnographic frontality of the Oriental dancers in the Exposition albums. One suspects the Culver Service photos, similar to one in the Museum of the City of New York, represent a dancer from New York, who, like the girl in the song, “never saw the Streets of Cairo.”
Along the Midway in 1893 other and more obvious sensibilities had to be considered. “No ordinary Western woman looked on one these performances with anything but horror, and at one time it was a matter of serious debate in the councils of the Exposition whether the customs of Cairo should be faithfully reproduced, or the morals of the public faithfully protected.” As far as the organizers of the Midway were concerned, the cloak of anthropological respectability was used to protect the morals of the public and insure the profits of the theatre managers.
The allure of the exotic women and their slithery dance had one other formidable barrier to surmount, the music that grated on Western ears.
Notwithstanding the indignation of the Board of Lady Managers, the danse du ventre proceeded, and though thousands went to see it, they did not go often, for the music was too irritating…. The music which will accompany this performance will be of a most monotonous character, the drums, particularly, hurting the ordinary ear with their increasing sharp beats.
Sol Bloom claimed credit for the famous cooch music phrase that became synonymous with belly dancing, but this is disputed. The infamous undulating minor key sequence has been traced back to 18th c. French copies of an Algerian melody. Certainly, the Chicago Fair was forever linked to the theme through a vaudeville song, The Streets of Cairo, that satirized the show from the Midway. The verses repeat the cooch theme, while the chorus changes to a more familiar music hall style.
STREETS OF CAIRO
w and m: James Thornton
(c) Frank Harding, 1895
I will sing you a song and it won’t be very long,
‘Bout a maiden sweet, and she never would be wrong.
Ev’ryone said she was pretty,
She was not long in the city,
All alone, oh, what a pity,
Poor little maid.
She never saw the streets of Cairo,
On the Midway she had never strayed,
She never saw the kutchy-kutchy,
Poor little country maid.
She went out one night, Did this innocent divine,
With a nice young man Who invited her to dine.
Now he’s sorry that he met her,
And he never will forget her,
In the future he’ll know better,
Poor little maid.
She was engaged As a picture for to pose,
To appear each night In abbreviated clothes.
All the dudes were in a flurry,
For to catch her they did hurry,
One who caught her now is sorry,
Poor little maid.
She was much fairer far than Trilby,
Lots of more men sorry will be,
If they don’t try to keep away from this
Poor little country maid.
Other extrapolations of oriental music quickly appeared. In 1895 alone, in addition to the Streets of Cairo already mentioned, Hoolah! Hoolah!, the Dance of the Midway, the Coochi-Coochi Polka, Danse du Ventre, Kutchi Kutchi, and Kutchy Kutchy all were published. There was even a Cairo Street Waltz “dedicated to the managers of Cairo Street.”
One song needs to be singled out from this group of post-Fair exploitations because it may explain the origin of the term “hoochie coochie” from a source heretofore overlooked.
In 1898 Gussie H. Davis introduced a song, When I Do the Hoochy Coochy in the Sky. Dennison in his study of African-American music classifies the composition as a “pseudo-spiritual.” The song is a parody of black religious experience and especially the preacher who promises a better world hereafter. One obvious question that has not been asked is why a preacher should encourage his flock with a vision of doing an oriental dance in the sweet bye-and-bye? Such a vision is usually associated (improperly and incorrectly) with Islam, not Christianity.
The answer is to be found in a second meaning of the term “hoochy coochy.” The words “hoochee koochee koochee” first appeared in the song “The Ham Fat Man” in 1863, three decades before the Chicago Fair and Little Egypt. By 1890 the term was connected with the minstrel show: William T. “Biff” Hall in his theatrical memoir mentions a certain “Hoochy Coochy” Rice, so called because he “invariably says that whenever he comes on stage.” The popularity of Davis’ song in the 90s may be completely unrelated to the oriental cooch craze from the Chicago Fair but rather be an extension of the minstrel show language that the black population of that day understood.
The topicality of Davis’ song, which is typical of all these songs about the cooch dance, is illustrated by the reference to using the newly-discovered (1895) X-rays to “see into the dance.” The connections with the Chicago Fair are apparent in the mention of the Midway and in one of the main attractions there: the hot air balloon. What is not certain is that the oriental dance is referred to in the song. More likely this “hoochy coochy” indicates a promenade or strutting style, not the danse du ventre.
The song’s topicality also underlines the “separate and unequal” status of African Americans in the society of the 1890s. Prevented from full participation in this world, the hope was transferred to a celebration in the next. Dennison concludes that the song “offers a nonpareil insult to the black religious impulse,” but the song could also be viewed as a protest against the exclusion of African Americans from the official events of the Fair. If the managers of the Fair were content to exclude black Americans from their great show, the African Americans knew that there would come a time and place when they would be welcome.
WHEN I DO THE HOOCHY COOCHY IN THE SKY
w and m: Gussie L. Davis
I ain’t got no money and I don’t need none,
‘Cos I don’t expect to stay here very long;
An’ old colored preacher by de name of Parson Brown,
He used to sing to me dis good ole song:
Says he, “I know you coons will stare
When I fly up thro’ the air,
When I bid all of you black chromos good bye;
I will raise a big sensation with the white population,
When I do the hoochy-coochy in de sky!
When you feel that funny feeling,
As it over you is stealing.
You will flop your snow-white wings and try to fly;
I know the angels they will giggle,
When I do that awful wiggle,
When I do the hoochy-coochy in the sky.
They’ll turn the X-rays on me when the music plays,
So dat ev’ry one can see into the dance,
I’m goin’ to do the Coochy seven thousand diff’rent ways,
An’ I’ll knock the Midway people in a trance.
Oh, I have got a big balloon
With a seat for ev’ry coon,
So now ev’ry nig must either go or die;
Don’t you listen to strange rumors,
but go buy a pair of “bloomers,”
For to do the hoochy coochy in the sky!
After the Chicago Fair closed some of the dancers went to New York and appeared at the Grand Central Palace (opening on Saturday, Dec. 3, 1893). The dancers were billed as Stella, Zora, Ferida, and Fatima. A raid by the New York Police Department helped to boost ticket sales. The following Monday three dancers were arrested and brought before the judge for arraignment the next day. As reported in the New York Times their attorney asked one of the women to demonstrate her dance for the court. Zelika, dressed in “red silk Turkish trousers, a blue Eton jacket, trimmed with gold, and a white gauze waist drawn in tight,…wriggled and twisted, turned, cavorted, and kicked through an exhibition in which there was not the slightest sign of graceful movement.” Fortunately for the theatre manager, the judge admitted, “Oh, it won’t harm anybody for a few days. Out in Chicago I saw it myself.” When the case came to trial, the women were fined fifty dollars each for immoral conduct, but under the watchful eye of the police a version of the show continued that was so restrained that “not even a church member could take offense.”
Millions had come to Chicago to see the Fair in ’93. In the years that followed at carnivals and theatrical productions everywhere millions more would have the thrill of watching the cooch dancers, and this time without the pseudoscientific anthropological veil. It was time to take it all off. At the St. Louis Fair of 1896 (not the Exposition of 1904) a “World’s Fair celebrity” by the name of Omeena did a “take-off,” perhaps the first strip tease cooch. The burlesque and vaudeville circuits picked up the attraction and packed the houses. A theatre bill from the 1890’s featured a second act that heralded
A bright and spicy program always concluding with a novel Burlesque up to the times, entitled Liberty’s Reception to Uncle Sam with much females.
P.S. During the Burlesque there will be introduced Songs, Dances, etc., also the latest novel craze from the Columbian Exposition, entitled THE PLAISANCE DANCERS.
In his history of Coney Island, McCullough has “Little Egypt” arriving on Surf Avenue in 1895. He cites a barker’s spiel, perhaps of his own invention, that captures the atmosphere of the event:
This way for the Streets of Cairo! One hundred and fifty Oriental beauties! The warmest spectacle on earth! Pre-sen-ting Little Egypt! See her prance, see her wriggle! See her dance the Hootchy Kootchy! Anywhere else but in the ocean breezes of Coney Island she would be consumed by her own fire! Don’t rush! Don’t crowd! Plenty of seats for all!
On the carnival circuit the craze was no less intense. Sobel recreates another spiel from a typical carnival performance:
“Gather up closely, gentlemen, and get a surprise. See a free show!”
As the crowd assembled, the dancer would stroll out onto the platform. Her costume was always strictly Oriental: a short bolero with coin decorations, a white chemise, harem pantaloons and a wide sash. Her hair hung loose over her shoulders, an outward indication of abandon that was somewhat startling in the nineties.
Expectancy made the crowd tense, but while the perspiring barker made his oratorical spiel the lady would glance indifferently at the heavens or push aside her draperies casually in order to emphasize the intimacies of her costume.
“And now,” the barker would cry, as he tapped his cane on the ticket box, “I take pleasure in introducing Little Egypt, the famous dancer who has turned this carnival into a conflagration.
“When she dances, every fiber and every tissue in her entire anatomy shakes like a jar of jelly from your grandmother’s Thanksgiving dinner. Now, gentlemen, I don’t say that she’s hot. But I do say that she is as hot as a red hot stove on the fourth day of July in the hottest county in the state.
“Recently a prominent society woman, attired in men’s clothing, came to see her, surreptitiously. The report was that she screamed for the police. That was a lie. The fact is she screamed for the ice-man. Yes, the entertainment is hot stuff! Come in and enjoy the experience of a lifetime for ten cents.”
By 1903 the sensation was over in New York and the vacated “Streets of Cairo” attraction at Coney Island was replaced by the Loop-the-Loop roller coaster ride. The success of “A Street in Cairo” at the Chicago Fair, however, was not lost on the planners of the St. Louis Exposition. A new version of the Egyptian attraction was built and visitors were assured that they could see the “Belle Fatima” and “Little Egypt” performing daily. In the decade between the two fairs “Little Egypt” had become the generic name for an oriental dancer. In 1904 the St. Louis Exposition would start a new generation down the by-ways of the “Streets of Cairo” to meet “Little Egypt.”
The next phase of the oriental dance craze owed its beginnings to the opera and the new dance theatre. Ruth St. Denis claimed to have performed an interpretation of Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils in Paris in 1906, but it took Strauss’ opera to spark the publicity that made for good box office. Based on Oscar Wilde’s poem, Strauss’ Salome had its premiere at Dresden in 1905. The New York debut took place on January 22, 1907, with Olive Fremstad in the title role. The Dance of the Seven Veils quickly became the center of attention. The crtitic for the New York Times gave Mme. Fremstad a rave review for hern representation of the feline sensualist and in the growth of her passion from mere curiosity to a consuming flame of desire. She presented a figure of wonderful exotic beauty, of lithe and snaky grace, with the languor and the fire of the Orient, the passion of a perverted nature. [Not to let this passion or the veils get out of control, the review goes on to note:] In her dance, after the first of the seven veils had been cast off, [Mme. Fremstad] was represented by Miss Bianca Froehlich, who carried through the rest of it in a manner conclusively Oriental, with all its appropriate posturings and shiverings and serpentine movements, now measured, now wild, frenetic.
The custom of substituting a dancer for the diva after the first veil dropped continued in later productions. As the Victor Book of the Opera delicately remarked, “It is highly improbable that any operatic Salomé has ever been sufficiently gifted as a dancer or sufficiently shapely to delineate the psychopathic voluptuousness of Herodias’ daughter.” Not be overlooked, however, is the uproar the Salome’s dance caused on opening night and the repercussions this might have on a diva’s career. The Times’ critic wrote:
It was the dance that women turn away from, and many of the women in the Metropolitan Opera House last night turned away from it. Very few men in the audience seemed comfortable. They twisted in their chairs, and before it was over there were numbers of them who decided to go out to the corridors and smoke.
A startling innovation in later productions occurred when the soprano actually performed the entire Dance of the Seven Veils. Mary Garden both sang and danced the role in New York and Chicago after the directors of the Metropolitan Opera had banned future productions of the opera. She was such a sensation that she did a turn in vaudeville presenting her Salome dance, but she eventually returned to opera.
Joe Laurie, Jr., called the Salome craze the phoniest fad to hit vaudeville, but it continued to make waves on the circuits, including versions that featured female impersonators. At Coney Island, New York, fifteen to twenty cooch shows might be running at any one time. At Hammerstein’s theatre in New York Gertrude Hoffman’s Salome dance act ran for an unprecedented 22 weeks.
The year 1908 marked the peak of the Salome rage. Coincidentally, that was the same year one Catherine Devine, another claimant to be the original “Little Egypt,” died. Several new Salome songs appeared in shows and revues in New York, but with a twist. In these songs Salome shifted from being oriental and biblical to being black. As Irving Ziedman phrased it, “Little Egypt was followed by Little Africa.” This development also coincided with the latest phase in the evolution of the “coon songs” that still were very popular in the vaudeville houses.
The first question the songwriter had to face was deciding on the pronunciation of the lady’s name. Was it “Sa-lo-me” to rhyme with “Dahomey” or “Sa-lome” that rhymes with “home?” Both were used, depending on the intention of the lyricist to convey a sense of culture or the lack of it. Bartley Costello in 1920 solved the issue by calling his song “Sal-O-May,” but in 1908 matters were more fluid. Irving Berlin tried it both ways in the same song: “Salomy” in the first verse, but silent-e “Salome” in the chorus. Stanley Murphy followed suit: the rhyme pattern is “Sa-lo-me”/”Dahomey” in the verse, but “home”/”Sa-lome” in the chorus. Will Cobb preferred silent-e for his “Sunburnt Salome,” adding “foam” to “home” as a rhyme.
The one thing the song writers did agree on was Salome’s lack of clothing. The notoriety of the Dance of the Seven Veils prepared the audience to expect this, and the lyricists were only too happy to accommodate them. The “Dusky Salome” would wear “a necklace and a dreamy smile.” “Sunburnt Salome” was told to leave her clothes at home in Cairo and come to America where she would “top the bill in Vaudeville.” Big Bill Jefferson, the railroad man, was tired of spending his hard-earned wages on fancy clothes for his sweetheart and saw the answer in finding a black “Salome” who would be content to wear “a yard of lace and some mosquito netting on her face.” The total cost for the new outfit, “about a cent.” As far as the staging of the Salome dance was concerned, the women remained rather well-clothed by modern standards, with flesh-colored tights preserving the integrity of the performers. It was only when the oriental dance moved into burlesque and strip tease that the costumes decreased in size and coverage.
THE DUSKY SALOME
w: Ed Madden
m: Benjamin M. Jerome
(c) Trebuhs Publishing, 1908
[The music begins with a “habeñera” rhythm]
The fair Evaline was a ragtime queen
with a manner sentimental;
But she sighed for a chance at a classical dance
with a movement oriental.
When lovesick coons with ragtime tunes
sang, “Babe, you’ve got to show me,”
She’d answer, “Bill, you bet I will,
I’m going to dance Salome.
Oh, oh me, that’ll show me, For
CHORUS: [the music shifts to ragtime]
I want a coon who can spoon to the tune of Salome.
I’ll make him giggle with a brand new wiggle that’ll show me;
In a truly oriental style,
With a necklace and a dreamy smile
I’ll dance to the coon who can spoon to the tune of Salome.
One musical coon said tonight I’ll spoon
where the fair Salome lingers.
When she danced ’round the place he just covered his face
but he looked right thro’ his fingers.
He sighed “It’s grand my heart and hand
I’d give to see you do it,”
She only said: “Give me your head
I’ll dance Salome to it,”
I’ll woo it that’ll do it. For
w: Will D. Cobb,
m: Gus Edwards.
(c) Gus Edwards Music Pub. Co., 1908
In the land of Cleopatra,
Where the palm-trees take the palm,
And the pyramids appear amid the sand,
There lives a little Sphinx
I’d give a lot to label “mine,”
And when the sun retires for the night;
Beneath her window in a turban white,
I twang a bar on my guitar,
And sing to eyes that shame the evening star.
Sunburnt Salome, Sunburnt Salome,
Pack your grip and take a trip,
With me across the foam;
Don’t put on your shoes and stockings,
Leave your clothes at home,
And you’ll top the bill in Vaudeville,
My sunburnt Salome.
It was on the streets of Cairo,
With her dark Egyptian art,
She danced herself into my open heart one day.
Her father by the Prophet swore an Oriental “nay,”
But stolen fruits are sweet they say,
And soon across the Desert sands I’ll ride;
On camel, High with my sweet stolen bride,
Though Papa swear and tear his hair,
I’ll plead to her my Queen, beyond compare.
I’M GOING TO GET MYSELF A BLACK SALOME
w: Stanley Murphy
m: Ed Wynn
(c) M. Shapiro, 1908
Big Bill Jefferson a railroad man,
Says “I try to save but never can.
Every month I’ve got to buy my babe a dress,
Then the landlord hands me out a dispossess,
She’s got Brinkley hats and Gibson sacks
Long straight fronts and habit backs,
I get enough remuneration, goodness knows,
But ev’ry single cent I earn she spends on clothes. So
I’m going to get myself a black “Salome”
A Hootchie-Kootchie dancer from Dahomey
All that she’ll wear is a yard of lace
And some mosquito netting on her face
A whole new outfit costs about a cent, And
then she can wiggle out of paying rent,
There’s no use of talking, I’m tired of my home,
So I’m going to get myself a black Salome.
Big Bill took a trip to Coney Isle,
Saw a dancer dressed up in a smile,
Oriental ear-rings and a string of pearls,
Surely was the Queen of the Salome girls,
Took her up to Ethiopian Hall,
To the dark town fancy ball,
She hadn’t hardly started in to wiggle about,
When ev’ry colored gentlemen [sic] began to shout. Oh
The last variation of the Salome craze featured a Jewish Salome. This was not the biblical maiden from Judea as in the Strauss opera, but a modern young woman from the East Side of New York. Fanny Brice had been winning amateur night prizes doing other people’s songs and was anxious to break into vaudeville. She needed a specialty number of her own to include in her act. She bluffed her way past a producer by assuring him she had one, then in desperation turned to a young writer in Tin Pan Alley for a new song. Irving Berlin offered her “Sadie Salome Go Home,” complete with Yiddish accent (“glasses” rhymes with “dresses” in the chorus). But it was her performance, wriggling to stay comfortable in a starched sailor suit that kept catching her “you know where,” that started her on the road to success.
SADIE SALOME GO HOME
w and m: Irving Berlin
(c) Ted Snyder, 1908
Sadie Cohen left her happy home
To become an actress lady,
On the stage she soon became the rage.
As the only real Salomy baby,
When she came to town, her sweetheart Mose
Brought for her around a pretty rose;
But he got an awful fright
When his Sadie came to sight.
He stood up and yelled with all his might:
Don’t do that dance, I tell you Sadie,
That’s not a bus’ness for a lady!
‘Most eveybody knows
That I’m your loving Mose,
Oy, Oy, Oy, Oy, Where is your clothes?
You better go and get your dresses,
Everyone’s got the op’ra glasses.
Oy! such a sad disgrace, No one looks in your face;
Sadie Salome, go home.
From the crowd Moses yelled out loud,
“Who put in your head such notions?
You look sweet but jiggle with your feet.
Who put in your back such funny motions?
As a singer you was always fine!
Sing to me, ‘Because the world is mine!’
Then the crowd began to roar,
Sadie did a new encore,
Mose got mad and yelled at her once more:
After 1908 the Salome craze in vaudeville was replaced by the “Venus” dancers (Zallah, the Dancing Venus, Jessie Keller, the Venus on Wheels, etc.). But a decade later Salome reemerged in the costume of the flapper dancing the shimmy.
What can be said about the cooch dance craze from the Chicago Fair? On the positive side it must be admitted that the performances at the Egyptian Theatre and elsewhere on the Midway were authentic ethnic activities and not the satires and burlesques of music and motion that were to follow. For all the attention given the dancers, it was the male musicians who demonstrated the music of the Middle East on horns, reeds, strings, and drums. Nonetheless, then as now, the tonalities of Middle Eastern music remained mostly noise to American ears.
For the cooch dance to become the hit of the carnivals and theatre houses, the accompaniment had to be transformed into western musical forms and rhythms. Several musical conventions became stereotyped as “oriental” for immediate audience recognition. The “cooch” theme music has already been mentioned. Besides being used in the verses of “She Never Saw The Streets of Cairo,” the motif also appeared in the accompaniments of other songs to lend an “oriental touch” to the music.
The most obvious musical device was the use of the minor key in the introduction or verse, although the chorus usually shifted to a major key. The choice of rhythmic pattern depended on the number of beats needed. In four, there was the repetition of hollow-fifth drumbeats (also familiar as the “American Indian” pattern of the accented first beat followed by three unaccented beats). This could be speeded up in two using a strong downbeat followed by two quick short beats. Another variation in two was the steady alternating of the tonic and fifth with the embellishment of an accidental on the fifth. Finally, Spanish rhythms such as the habeñera were borrowed to create an exotic mood.
On the negative side, “Little Egypt” and her sisters re-enforced all the bad ethnic and gender stereotypes about Middle Eastern women: they were objects and toys, things of pleasure intended for the benefit of men. An American male could accept the development of the female abdominal muscles as noteworthy; it certainly attracted crowds of paying customers at the Fair. The public display of such accomplishments, however, was tempered by the observation that these women represented a lower social class; they couldn’t be expected to be any better than their origins. There was no way for the American audience to know or appreciate the status of professional dancers in the Middle East or the rigorous training required of the dancers; from the American standpoint the negative associations of the undulating movements of the torso were sufficient to denigrate the performers.
For the author of The Dream City, the contrast between the oriental dancer and the dancing girl in the Hungarian Cafe Chantant clearly demonstrated the great differences between the European and Middle Eastern women. Photos of the two were juxtaposed on the same page with these remarks: the performer of the danse du ventre, the re-incarnation of the dancer who doomed the first New Testament martyr, is shown in a close and trying study of a posture-dancer in the Street of Cairo. The Western eye was but a moment in determining, at the World’s Fair, that time has wrought as great a change in the dance as in the alphabet. Whereas, men began by reading from right to left, they now mostly read from left to right; and whereas, dancing began by movements of the body rather than the lower limbs, it has now developed into the Western performance. When Western officials came to gaze on her rendition of the act by which John the Baptist lost his head, they were sorely perplexed.
But when one moved to the Hungarian cafe,
The change from a study of the Cairo girl and her frightful tambours to Listz’s music and Western beauty and grace, is the greatest that could be furnished by feminine youth. Only Darwin could expatiate impartially on these variations of taste in the human kind.
After the Chicago Fair things only got worse: the danse du ventre degenerated into a strip tease or burlesque routine. Strauss’ opera had the effect of encouraging a “chic porn” evolution of Salome’s dance. There is the perception that opera productions, after all, are staged for the better classes of citizens who, by virtue of their education and social position, can appreciate the nuances of Salome’s troubled psyche externalized in her dance. But the performer still takes off her clothes in front of a paying audience, and so ultimately the oriental dance is stereotyped as a strip tease rather than as an art form. The hundreds of Salome dancers at carnivals, vaudeville and burlesque houses only re-enforced the stereotype.
There is a danger of judging the outlook and opinions of those living even a century ago with a moral or social yardstick invented only in recent decades. The organizers of the exhibitions on the Midway were following the intellectual program of the new science of ethnology with a strong overlay of Darwinian theory. For them the mechanical and technological superiority of Europe and America was demonstrable evidence of an intellectual and moral superiority that relegated all other cultures to lower rungs of the evolutionary ladder. This judgmental attitude continues to be re-inforced whenever the criteria for evaluating another society focuses on appearances and ephemeral material objects instead of comprehending the interpersonal and community relations that hold a society together.
In our own time there is the methodological confusion on the part of observers from one culture analyzing what another culture is doing in its traditions and rituals. Even the words used to describe another people’s traditions are loaded with meanings that may be alien to the observed culture. To call a non-western society “medieval” or its social system “feudal” inevitably carries the freight these terms denote in the experiences of western Europe. Anthropologists and sociologists have become aware of these problems of field reporting, but oversimplification and not-always-glittering generalities too often remain the norms of discourse about other cultures.
Less than two months after “A Street in Cairo” closed on the Midway at the Chicago Fair, the structures were relocated to the San Francisco Midwinter Fair. Within two years another “Streets of Cairo” had opened at Coney Island in New York. Meanwhile “Little Egypt” was re-invented in vaudeville houses and carnivals coast-to-coast. Over twenty-one million people attended the St. Louis Exposition and had the chance to walk yet another “Streets of Cairo” and watch “Little Egypt” and her sisters in the dance. In just over ten years the “cooch” dancer had captured the popular imagination with a stereotype that has endured ever since. In our own time of image-saturation in multiplex cinemas and cable television, it must also be remembered that all of these sisters of “Little Egypt” were live performers, not celluloid or electronic images. This collective memory of watching real people in real time cannot be easily erased.
Allen, Robert C. Horrible Prettiness; Burlesque and American Culture. Chapel Hill: North Carolina Press, 1991.
Barzel, Ann. “Little Egypt Never Got to the Chicago Fair!” in Dance Magazine v. 38, n.12, (December, 1964), pp. 62-65.
Blesh, Rudi and Harriet Janis. They All Played Ragtime. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1950; rep. Grove Press, 1959, Oak Publications, 1966.
Burg, David F. Chicago’s White City of 1893. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1976.
Çelik, Zeynep. Displaying the Orient: Architecture of Islam at 19th Century World’s Fairs. . Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1992.
Corio, Ann. This Was Burlesque. New York: Madison Square Press, 1968.
Dennison, Sam. Scandalize My Name: Black Imagery in American Popular Music. New York: Garland Publishing, 1982.
The Dream City; A Portfolio of Photographic Views of the World’s Columbian Exposition. St. Louis, MO: N. D. Thompson Publishing Co., 1893.
Francis, David Rowland. Universal Exposition of 1904. 2 vols. St. Louis, MO: Louisiana Purchase Exposition Co., 1913.
Fuld, James J. The Book of World-Famous Music, 3rd edition. New York: Dover Publications, 1985.
Gems of the World’s Fair and Midway Plaisance. Philadelphia: Historical Publishing Company, 1894.
Gilbert, Douglas. American Vaudeville, Its Life and Times. New York: Whittlesey House/McGraw Hill, 1940.
_____. Lost Chords: The Diverting Story of American Popular Songs. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Doran and Co., 1942.
Gioseffi, Daniela. Earth Dancing: Mother Nature’s Oldest Rite. Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1980.
Goldman, Herbert G. Fanny Brice, The Original Funny Girl. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Green, Abel and Joe Laurie, Jr. Show Biz from Vaude to Video. Port Washington: Kennikat Press, 1951, rep. 1972.
Grossman, Barbara W. Funny Woman, The Life and Times of Fanny Brice. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1991.
Hanson, John Wesley. The Official History of the Fair, Saint Louis, 1904. Chicago: Monarch Book Co., 1904.
Katkov, Norman. The Fabulous Fanny. The Story of Fanny Brice. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1953.
Laurie, Joe, Jr. Vaudeville from the Honky Tonks to the Palace. New York: Henry Holt, 1953.
Mayer, Martin. The Met; One Hundred Years of Grand Opera. New York: Simon and Schuster/The Metropolitan Opera Guild, 1983.
McCullough, Edo. Good Old Coney Island. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1957.
O’Connell, Charles, ed. The Victor Book of the Opera. Camden, NJ: RCA Manufacturing Co., Inc., 1929, rev. 1936.
Pierce, James Wilson. Photographic History of the World’s Fair. Baltimore, MD: R. H. Woodward and Company, 1983.
Puffett, Derrick, ed. Richard Strauss, Salome. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Rydell, Robert W. All the World’s A Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Expositions, 1876 – 1916. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
St. Denis, Ruth. Ruth St. Denis: An Unfinished Life. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1939.
Scott, Gertrude M. Village Performance: Villages at the Chicago’s Columbian Exhibition, 1893. Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1991.
Shepp, James W. and Daniel B. Shepp. Shepp’s World’s Fair Photographed. Chicago: Globe Bible Publishing Co., 1893.
Sobel, Bernard. A Pictorial History of Burlesque. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1956.
_____. A Pictorial History of Vaudeville. New York: Citadel Press, 1961.
Strauss, Richard. Recollections and Reflections, ed. Willi Schuh, trans. L. J. Lawrence. London: Boosey and Hawkes, 1953.
Zeidman, Irving. The American Burlesque Show. New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1967.
1 The words of the popular song “Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis” include the well-known couplet: “She will do the hoochie-coochie, you may be my tootsie-wootsie,” referring to the asttractions of the 1904 Exposition. Most people today probably assume “tootsie-wootsie” is a variant of “toots” as a term of endearment.
2. Douglas Gilbert, American Vaudeville, Its Life and Times (New York: Whittlesey House/McGraw Hill, 1940) p. 15.
3. It is said that Walt Disney’s father, Elias, was a carpenter at the Fair and he possibly told his son (b. 1901) stories about the fantasy city.
[iv]. Robert C. Allen, Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture (Chapel Hill, NC: North Carolina Press, 1991) p. 225-226. Some of the displays became part of The Field Museum of Natural History just as exhibits from the Philadelphia Centennial had been moved to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.
[v]. Allen. op. cit., has made a Procrustean bed out of the Midway and allowed an unfortunate typographical error to slip by. He writes that the Japanese exhibit in the Asian section featured a people who were “closest to the American heart of all the semi-civilized races.” Actually, the Japanese exhibit was next to the Irish, and so closer to the White City than Allen allows. The original quotation was in reference to the Javanese, not the Japanese. See Robert W. Rydell, All The World’s A Fair (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1984) p. 66, quoting Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly 36 (October 1893):415. For a study of the various “villages,” see Gertrude M. Scott, Village Performance: Villages at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893 (Ph.D. dissertation, New York University, 1991).
[vi]. “Typical Scenes in Cairo Street” in The Dream City: A Portfolio of Photographic Views of the World’s Columbian Exposition (St. Louis, MO: N. D. Thompson Publishing Company, 1983). There are no page numbers in the album; pictures are identified there and here by their titles.
. Bernard Sobel, A Pictorial History of Burlesque (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1956) p. 55 ff. An earlier version of this material was published as “The Historic Hootchy Kootchy” in Dance Magazine, v. 20, n. 10 (October, 1946), pp. 13-15, 46. In 1936 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released “The Great Ziegfeld” which featured a sequence set at the Chicago Fair. The story line invented a proposed romance between “Little Egypt” and Sandow the strong man. A libel suit was filed against MGM in New York by Frieda Mahzar Spyropoulos who alleged “that she was born in Cairo, Egypt, and that in 1893 … she was chosen for the role of “Little Egypt” on the Midway.” The use of her stage name and the story of a romance with Sandow, she said, “was without her consent and has injured her reputation.” (New York Times, May 5, 1936, p. 26, col. 4) These two references, both connected with the MGM film, are the only ones linking “Little Egypt” with the Midway Plaisance at the Chicago Fair.
. The use of the term “nautch girls” comes from Urdu/Hindi through the British reports of professional dancers in India. Like their American cousins, the English found the music monotonous and the dancers not very pretty. See OED, “nautch.” The dancers in the Persian Palace were also called nautch dancers in some reports.
. Sobel, op.cit., p. 56 and Ann Corio, This Was Burlesque (New York: Madison Square Press, 1968) p. 37, show the same woman in two similar poses. E. McCullough, Good Old Coney Island (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1957). p. 255, credits a third picture from the same series to the Museum of the City of New York.
. James J. Fuld, The Book of World-Famous Music (New York: Dover Publications, 1985) p. 276. He traces the original phrase back to Kradoutja, a melody of Arabic origin known in France since 1600. Since Bloom had brought an Algerian troupe to Chicago from Paris, it would not be surprising if the tune came with them. Sobel on the other hand cites Hans Spialek’s research that traced the dance back to the Balkans, not the orient [!] and to music “founded probably on an 18th c. shepherd song.” Dance Magazine,October, 1946, pp. 13-14.
. Douglas Gilbert, Lost Chords (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Doran, 1942) p. 291 reports the enduring legend that when Will Rossiter published “She Never Saw The Streets of Cairo,” he adorned the cover of the music with a photo of “Little Egypt.” All of those copies were allegedly destroyed out of fear of legal action by the dancer. For many years a bounty of $500 was offered for a copy of that non-existent first edition.
. Sam Dennison, Scandalize My Name: Black Imagery in American Popular Music (New York: Garland Publishing, 1982) p. 391.
. The continuing divide between the races in American society was evident at the Fair. In the United States out of a total population of 67 million, blacks accounted for 8 million nationwide, yet none was invited to participate in the opening festivities. Frederick Douglass was there in his capacity as commissioner from Haiti to the exposition. He wrote, “In contemplating the inauguration ceremonies, glorious as they were, there was one thing that dimmed their glory. The occasion itself was world embracing in its idea. It spoke of human brotherhood, human welfare and human progress. It naturally implied a welcome to every possible variety of mankind. Yet, I saw, or thought I saw, an intentional slight to that part of the American population with which I am identified.” [James B. Campbell. Campbell’s Illustrated History of the World’s Columbian Exposition (Chicago: N. Juul & Co., 1894), p. 250] A certain degree of recognition was accorded to “the Afro-American race” on August 25, which was designated Colored People’s Day. Frederick Douglass gave a speech on “The Race Problem in America.”
. New York Times, Dec. 3, p.2; Dec. 5, p. 8; Dec. 7, p. 3. The Fatma Masgish arrested in New York may have been “Fatima” from the Persian Palace on the Midway. A film of “Fatima’s Dance” made in 1896, now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, may be the same Fatima/Fatma. Cf. G. Scott, Village Performance, pp. 211 and 385, n. 20. Scott concludes that if this assumption is correct, “then Fatima of the Persian Palace would be as good a candidate for the title of Little Egypt as Fareda Mahzar.”
. Edo McCullough, Good Old Coney Island (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1957), pp. 254 – 256. The attraction at Coney Island was called the “Streets of Cairo,” unlike “A Street in Cairo” at the Chicago Fair. This may be the origin of the confusion of “Little Egypt” appearing in the Chicago Midway attraction. Sobel, for example, incorrectly refers to the Chicago exhibition as the “Streets of Cairo.” (Dance Magazine, October, 1946, p. 13.)
. In her autobiography Ruth St. Denis: An Unfinished Life (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1939) there is no mention of a Salome dance at this time. She did perform an Indian dance, Nautch, which she and later commentators may have conflated or confused with a Salome dance. She composed a 5-part dance entitled Egypta, based on pharaonic motifs (1906, U.S. premiere in 1910), and a group of dances with Ted Shawn called Arabic Suite (1914).
. New York Times, Jan. 23, 1907, p. 9. In 1908 a Mlle. Froelich was later hooted off the stage in Yonkers when she did the Salome dance. Was this Bianca from the Metropolitan Opera House production of Salome? Abel Green and Joe Laurie, Jr., Show Biz from Vaude to Video (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1951), p. 9; Joe Laurie, Jr., Vaudeville from the Honky Tonks to the Palace (New York: Henry Holt, 1953), p. 41.
. Charles O’Connell, ed. The Victor Book of the Opera (Camden, NJ: RCA Manufacturing Co., 1929, rev. 1936) p. 458.
. New York Times, Jan. 23, 1907, p.9. Henry Krehbiel, writing in the Tribune, said the performance “left the listeners staring at each other with starting eyeballs and wrecked nerves.” The critic had a “conscience stung into righteous fury by the moral stench with which Salome fills the nostrils of humanity.” See Martin Mayer, The Met (New York: Simon and Schuster/The Metropolitan Opera Guild, 1983) p. 92.
. Strauss referred to “the Puritans in New York, where the opera had to be taken off the repertoire at the instigation of a certain Mr. [J. Pierpont] Morgan.” “Reminiscences of the First Performance of My Operas” in Willi Schuh, ed., Recollections and Reflections (London: Boosey and Hawkes, 1953) p. 152. Oscar Hammerstein presented Salome at his Manhattan Opera House two years later with Mary Garden in the title role. Salome was not presented at the Met again until January 13, 1934.
. Show Biz, p. 9; “It was Eva Tanguay who really busted things wide open for Salome dancers, when she discarded all seven veils.” Laurie, Vaudeville, p. 41. Eventually, this would find its way back to the opera productions: in 1988 Maria Ewing finished the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ in Covent Garden totally naked, “an effect common in contemporary German productions, but not previously experienced in this country.” (Derrick Puffett, Richard Strauss Salome (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989) p. 161).
. The difficulty goes back to the origins of the name itself, as Derrick Puffett (op.cit., p. 9) remarks (speaking of Jochanaan, i.e., John the Baptist, in Strauss’ opera), “Any attempt to impose linguistic consistency on a work [that is] the German version of an English transliteration of a Hebrew form of the name of a character in a German opera based on a play written in French by an Irishman is probably doomed from the outset.”
. Music by Robert Stolz, published by Wiener-Boheme. In 1961 Jimmy Kennedy wrote new lyrics and under a new title, “Romeo,” it was recorded by Petula Clark.
. Sunburnt Salome comes from the land of Cleopatra, whose name would become a much simpler subject for the lyricists in the mid-to-late teens and into the 20s. But even the Egyptian queen has acquired at least two variations: P. G. Wodehouse’s “Cleopatterer” (1917) and Alfred Bryan’s Egyptian colleen[!] “Cleopatricola” (1920).
. Johnny Burke and Jimmy VanHeusen managed the same effect with greater indirection in a chorus about Salome (three syllables) in Personality ((c)1946 in “Road to Utopia”): “And when Salome danced/ and had the boys entranced/ no doubt it must have been easy to see/ that she knew how to use her – personality.”
. The story is repeated with variations in Barbara Grossman, Funny Woman, The Life and Times of Fanny Brice (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1991) p. 27 – 33; Norman Katkov, The Fabulous Fanny. The Story of Fanny Brice (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1953) pp. 50-51; and Herbert G. Goldman, Fanny Brice, The Original Funny Girl (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992) pp. 35-37.
. David Burg, Chicago’s White City of 1893 (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1976) p.220, reproduces the coverplate of “Cairo Street Waltz” published by Signor Gugliemo Ricci, Chicago, “Dedicated to the Managers of Cairo Street, World’s Columbian Exposition 1893.” Sobel, op. cit., p. 57, prints the beginning of the 1st violin part for “‘Danse du Ventre’ Polka” by Tom Clark (New York: Carl Fischer, 1912), music which illustrates how the original ethnic melodies were replaced by more familiar western musical forms.
. See n. 38 for contemporary operatic nudity. Class distinctions can also appear in the opera house. The climatic scene in the Strauss opera comes when Salome holds the severed head of John the Baptist and kisses its lips. At the New York premiere pandemonium broke out:
“But when, following the lines of Wilde’s play, Mme. Fremstad began to sing to the head before her, the horror of the thing started a party of men and women from the front row, and from Boxes 27 and 29 in the Golden Horseshoe two parties tumbled precipitously into the corridors and called to a waiting employe of the house to get their carriages.
But in the galleries men and women left their seats to stand so that they might look down on the prima donna as she kissed the dead lips of the head of John the Baptist. Then they sunk back in their chairs and shuddered.” (New York Times, Jan. 23, 1907, p. 9).